The book on Andrew Hammond in the NHL had long since been closed. It’s a brief tale of sudden success and just-as-sudden decline. An undrafted goalie out of Bowling Green, he flew under the radar in the Ottawa Senators system for a couple of years until February 2015, when he made 42 saves in his first career NHL start and victory. From there, he stayed molten hot, going 20-1-2 through the rest of the regular season to help the struggling Sens steal a playoff berth as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
After two playoff losses, however, Hammond was pulled for the remainder of the Sens’ first-round defeat. And though he earned himself a contract extension in the summer, he never regained that incredible rookie magic, going 7-11-4 in 2015-16 and eventually hitting waivers just two years after it all began. If he enjoyed any kind of curtain call, it was when a desperate Colorado Avalanche called upon him to win a do-or-die Game 5 in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, after he made just one start for them all regular season. Hammond stopped 44 shots in the victory, but gave up five goals to lose Game 6, in what for quite a while seemed to be his final NHL game.
But four years later, yet another desperate team has found themselves turning to Hammond for help: the Montreal Canadiens. It’s been an ugly disaster of a year so far for the last-place Habs, typified by their situation at goalie. Their longtime star, Carey Price, hasn’t featured at all due to a combination of injury’s and his entry into the NHL’s player assistance program. Jake Allen, the middling backup, suffered a long-term injury in January. And the youngsters Montreal has put in net, Sam Montembeault and Cayden Primeau, have each been well below average.
So the Habs sent a minor-league winger, Brandon Baddock, to the Wild in exchange for one of their minor-league goalies, the 34-year-old Andrew Hammond. And wouldn’t you know it, his two games between the pipes so far have been some of the best the Canadiens have experienced all season. Against the Islanders on Feb. 20, he made 30 saves and stopped two of three shootout attempts for the win. Then, as fate would have it, he took the ice against his old Senators in Ottawa on Saturday, where he led his brand-new squad to a 2-1 victory—their fifth in a row in a season where, up to this point, they’d failed to manage back-to-back wins.
Hammond’s success adds, if nothing else, a surprising epilogue to the end of his career, and for Montreal, the wins he’s helped provide are an exciting bright spot in an otherwise horrific season. But the man they once called “Hamburglar” up in Ottawa isn’t the only goalie seeing unexpected life after years away from the highest level. The Columbus Blue Jackets, though they’re in better shape than the Habs, have also been struggling with goalie injuries as of late, and knocks to both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo had them calling up Jean-Francois Berube from the Cleveland Monsters to man the crease.
The 30-year-old Berube’s career arc has been something like Hammond’s, only without that one burst of ecstasy. Drafted in the fourth round by the Kings back in 2009, he spent several seasons in the minors before being waived and picked up by the Islanders in 2015. He appeared in 21 forgettable games across a few seasons for them, then 13 in Chicago in 2017-18, then he bounced around the minor league affiliates for Columbus, Philly, and the Rangers before signing a second deal with the Jackets at the start of this year.
To say Berube was even a future Guy to be remembered at this point would be giving him a lot of credit, but since he was thrust back into the spotlight a week ago, making his first NHL start in nearly four years, he’s done everything he could to hang on to the role. With Berube in net giving strong performances, the Jackets beat Buffalo, then Toronto, then the dang Florida Panthers all in the span of five days. And though CBJ ran out of gas against the Hurricanes on Friday, in Berube’s fourth straight start, he still came up with 46 saves and clung to the shutout until midway through the second. Also: Awwww!
For the rational, analytical hockey fan, there is nothing more frustrating than goaltending, where only the absolute cream of the crop can achieve anything like consistent year-to-year (or even month-to-month) results. Unless, maybe, you’re icing someone with a claim to best in the world, like Andrei Vasilevskiy or Henrik Lundqvist, the razor-thin differences in timing and physics that separate a goal from a save means a team should always live in fear of an unannounced change in fortune for their all-star, or for the scrub in the opposing net to suddenly begin stopping shots like peak Marty Brodeur.
On the flip side of feel-good stories like Hammond and Berube, there are seasons like the one Philipp Grubauer is currently suffering through, as the seemingly solid veteran goalie who dominated for the Avs last season has been zapped into the league’s worst starter as a member of the expansion Seattle Kraken. But then there’s also the career-best season that the 32-year-old Frederik Andersen is living through in Carolina, a year removed from losing his job with the Leafs. Or there’s also the Carey Price hot streak that lifted the Canadiens to the Finals last year. Up and down and up and down. The factors that contribute to a triumphant goalie outing are still too elusive to make this position even a little bit predictable.
But that’s part of the fun, I suppose. Though the ideas of randomness and disorienting changes might have a bit of a negative connotation—turning smart observers into doofuses, big contracts into albatrosses, and great-looking playoff teams into losers all while reminding us how little control we all possess in this world—some surprises are fun, too, and the give-and-take nature of sports means that for every rough collapse, there’s an ascending rookie or returning vet winning games elsewhere. I do not like the unreliability of goaltending, but if the chaotic nature of this job makes it possible for guys like Hammond and Berube to get another moment in the spotlight, I guess it can’t be all bad.